The United States is a political anomaly. Throughout time there has never been a nation so politically, culturally, and militarily dominant. Rome, even at its height, had rivals. So too did the British Empire, which at its apex made pretense to the rule of the waves, in spite of near constant challenges to its power from forces seeking to upset or supplant it. The international stability and peace created by these great empires, the Pax Romana and Pax Britannica, the Roman Peace and the British Peace, served in their times to guarantee security and relative prosperity within their spheres of influence. Yet they could never do so unchallenged.
First, Without Equals
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States stood alone. It was the one true super power, the like of which the world had never seen, nor may ever see again. With the ability to project irresistible power to all corners of the Earth, the United States worked to construct a global order in its own image.
Many of its efforts have borne remarkable fruit. The preponderance and entrenchment of international laws and institutions have been the direct result of American effort. Along with its many allies, the United States has promoted an international system that is ever more intertwined and interdependent.
The United States has also used its influence to export liberal-democracy and its attendant principles around the world. Through organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, nations have been brought closer together, both in terms of economic ties and ideological harmonization.
The United States has also risen in the past two decades to the role of de facto guarantor of international security. With a military and defense budget greater than the rest of world’s combined, American military might is unparalleled in history.
With Great Power…
This great might has, however, not simply produced stability and prosperity. Indeed, the United States has on many occasions abused its privileged position in international affairs. It has pursued unilateralist policies over the strident objections of the international community, such as in its prosecution of the Second Iraq War in which it blatantly ignored the UN, and many of its allies and trading partners.
In the War on Terror, also, the United States has adopted a policy of ignoring the principles of sovereignty, even that of its allies, through the use of unmanned drones and other weapons in the endless hunt for al Qaeda and its offshoots. America’s efforts in this regard are often counterproductive, as they serve often only to radicalize populations against not only America, but also the liberal-democratic principles it represents and wishes to spread.
Perhaps worst of all, the US has actively sought to subvert the institutions it helped build when political expediency has demanded it. By ignoring WTO policies and trade agreements, as well as a variety of other international laws, the United States has succeeded in weakening the institutions it has been instrumental in building, by creating a feeling in the international community that international law only applies to those countries not strong enough to flout it.
On balance, however, I would argue that the United States has done more good than harm. In truth it has succeeded in fostering an era of unheard of peace and cooperation between nations great and small, respect for international institutions that have now taken on a life and robustness all their own, and has served to prevent major conflicts both between and within states.
However, these positive efforts will not be sufficient in future, and those negative actions will only become more damaging as we progress into the 21st century.
The Rise of the East
We live in a time of change, change far more rapid than anyone expected. Accelerated by the financial crisis and the deep recession in the West, power, economic, political, and ideological, is flowing inexorably eastward. The rise of China is the biggest headline grabber, but many other countries, such as Vietnam are no less startling in their explosive growth and expansion.
Many of the swiftly rising states, most notably China, are quite new to the international institutional and legal system, and have proven to be rather cagey about accepting its precepts wholesale. This reluctance to sign up to international laws and norms signals grave difficulties for the future of international relations. One need only look to the resurgence of Russia to understand the dangers of an international system no longer moored by American leadership. Political and military shenanigans like those of Vladimir Putin may one day soon not be an aberration, but the norm.
It may be easy to assume that the natural state of relations between governments and nations is one of stability and peace, since that has been the reality, generally, for the past several decades. Yet this peaceful status quo is in many ways the result of dominant American leadership in the international arena. It was, after all, out of a relatively chaotic, often war-torn world that America built the current system.
So long as the United States and its allies are able to defend this order it has created, it will survive.
Preserving the Pax Americana
Yet, while the United States remains the preeminent world power, with the world’s biggest economy, and by far its most powerful military, this reality is changing. Soon enough the United States will be supplanted by China as the largest economy in the world. After that, America’s military and technological advantages will face greater and greater challenges, if not eventual erosion.
For an international political order to outlive its creator is unheard of in history. Throughout history, as dominant powers decline, the systems they create decline with them. As the political scientist Robert Kagan puts it, “The present order will last only as long as those who favor it and benefit from it retain the will and capacity to defend it.” Such was the case with both the Roman and British empires. As Rome declined in power, the stability it had created within its borders and on its periphery was washed away by the barbarian tide. So too did the end of British naval supremacy precipitate the conflicts that would plunge the whole world into war. The Pax Romana and Pax Britannica died with their creators.
Yet this need not necessarily be the case for the American Peace. It is still possible for the United States to build a lasting world order that will outlive its own era of supremacy, though its window of opportunity is certainly closing fast. The question is not whether the US has the power to affect this solidification of the present order. The question facing America, rather, is whether it has the will to change course from exceptionalism and flouting of the international system it built for its own short-term strategic aims.
America faces a major decision point. If the global system the United States has created and defended is to survive the end of American preeminence, the United States must take full advantage of the time it has left in the saddle of world affairs.
There are a number of things it can do:
First, it can use its power to help struggling and nascent democracies, rather than wasting resources and political will in seeking to impose democratic systems where they are not yet wanted and would not be accepted. American adventurism and instigation of regime-change is a costly and counterproductive exercise, as the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us, in terms of money, goodwill, and most importantly lives. Better to foster organic change where possible and to help in sustaining the many states still fighting to retain and entrench their democracies and the rule of law than to pursue the quixotic unilateralism of the present.
Second, America’s leaders must abandon the mindset of absolute exceptionalism that has caused the US to not only charge into conflicts unbidden, but also to regularly ignore basic international statutes and treaties when it finds it convenient to do so. In order to entrench the institutions into which it has poured so much blood and treasure, the United States must accept that those institutions must bind it too if they are to have any credibility in the long term.
Third, the United States must seek to engage the rising powers on terms that will allow for their acceptance of, and integration into the international system. China in particular must be coaxed into buying into the system. By continuing and expanding economic cooperation, while at the same time utilizing America’s significant influence in Asia and the Pacific to cajole China into participation in, rather than antagonism toward, its neighbors and the global community. All of this will take considerable effort from America’s leaders, who must learn better to use their waning influence carefully and effectively. An important part of that would be to secure free trade as an international norm so far as is possible and to allow the free market, rather than military muscle or government coercion, lead global affairs.
Ultimately it is not a matter of whether the United States will lose its position of near invulnerability, but of when. And as that when seems sooner than anyone expected, the timetable for action must be accelerated. The window of opportunity is at best a few decades wide, and we must hope America does not squander its unique opportunity to leave its permanent imprint upon the global order. Because, it is not only a matter of America making for itself a comfortable set-up for retirement from preeminence, but rather it is also a matter of guaranteeing peace, security, and liberty for all nations.
It is in the manifest interest of the international community that the remarkable peace and stability that exists today be maintained into the future. The world has, through history, been an extremely dangerous place, fraught with violence and conflict. Certainly, the institutional and ideological model underpinning the current system is not perfect, and has been faced with many strong and legitimate criticisms, but the system has been truly unique in its ability to maintain lasting peace, and to foster trade and cooperation between and across states on a global scale.
The American Peace can be different and longer lasting than its predecessors, but only if it is a peace that is built by, not dominated by, America.